Scandal, Fraud And Abuse | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Scandal, Fraud And Abuse


Twenty-four months in, the Katrina information firestorm has been dampened down to the size of a birthday candle fl ame in mainstream media, leaving the 60,000 still living in FEMA trailers and the quarter-million still displaced after two years without good options for getting their stories out.

Several organizations—both grass roots and nationwide—have issued reports on the two-year anniversary of Katrina and Rita. While researchers may disagree on some details, one thing is alarmingly evident: The federal government has broken its promises to Katrina victims. People hardest hit and least able to recover without assistance—poor and moderate-income households—are receiving the least amount of aid, and the inequities are getting worse, not better, according to the reports.

Two reports offer a compendium of stories from the Coast. The first, from the Initiative for Regional and Community Transformation, focuses on recovery from a policy viewpoint. The 12 papers illustrate "the enduring and worsening inequities wrought on coastal communities of color, low-income populations, and other vulnerable groups—the elderly and disabled, children, renters—resulting in … displacement, unemployment, health problems, environmental risks and an overall loss of security and stability."

The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP points out the difficulty of finding out where housing-aid dollars are being spent in, "The Accountability Gap: Unanswered Questions Two Years Later." That report cites Gov. Haley Barbour's veto of House Bill 1320, which would have put the onus of tracking and publicly reporting spending on the agencies tasked with allocating those funds: the Mississippi Development Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Instead, citizens are kept "at arms length" from spending, resulting in a massively inequitable recovery. Allocations are heavily skewed toward homeowners, leaving renters with virtually nothing.

To date, homeowner programs have received $3.3 billion of the $3.5 billion allocated toward housing, while rental and public housing programs have received $368 million, or about 10 percent.

"But the Gulf Coast economy relies heavily on low-wage service sector jobs," the report states, with most job opportunities in the food prep and serving-related sectors. Yet "nominal" recovery investments in rental stock discourage the relevant workforce with high rents and low vacancy rates.

Another report in the IRCT compendium, "Experiences of Hurricane Katrina Survivors in East Biloxi, MS: A Tale of Tragedy and Resilience," documents a community "woefully neglected by major relief organizations" after Katrina. Their findings include mental and physical reactions to the stressors of the hurricane and overwhelmingly negative reactions to "offi cial" disaster-relief organizations such as FEMA and the Red Cross.

The Institute for Southern Studies' Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch published a second compendium, sponsored by Oxfam America and the Jewish Funds for Justice, compiled by analyzing "reams of government reports, media coverage and statistical indicators." That report focuses on the promises made and broken by the U.S. government in the wake of Katrina, and offers dozens of proposals to create a "vibrant, just and healthy future for the Gulf Coast's people."

The authors of "Where did the Katrina Money Go?" say that FEMA spent about two-thirds of the $116 billion allocated to recovery on short-term needs like debris removal, leaving about $35 billion for all of the other low-balled FEMA project costs, underestimated by a "factor of four or five." The authors state that the White House and Congress have not adequately overseen federally funded programs, resulting in millions of tax credits going to developers of projects with questionable value to Katrina survivors, and federal contracts plagued by "scandal, fraud and abuse," to the tune of billions wasted.

The GRW report puts a devastatingly human face on the issues. In "Rebuilding for All," Bishop James Black and Sandra Taylor of the Center for Environmental and Economic Justice in Biloxi says they trained 25 residents in environmental hazards cleanup because the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to launch testing for storm-related contamination.

"Women Have a Voice" documents the work of the Coastal Women for Change, also based in Biloxi. Some 3,000 child-care centers were in the path of the storm, and CWC opened several in-home centers when lawmakers failed to act. They also addressed the need of the elderly, often isolated and
vulnerable to robbery and abuse, by working with police to step up patrols. Executive Director Sharon Hanshaw also calls attention to the plight of renters in an area where home and apartment prices have doubled. "People are working two jobs just to survive," she says.

The report details the lack of public schools, many of which have not reopened; the dearth of health-care facilities, about to get worse as Mississippi closes free clinics in response to complaints of for-profit groups; and abuse of immigrants brought in to rebuild the area. Adding insult to injury, FEMA is now attempting to recoup some $410 million in relief funds from those least able to pay, including the elderly, some of whom will have their Social Security benefits garnished if they fail to make payments.

Ultimately, "only bold national leadership can ensure a better future for the Gulf Coast," the report states. "Only Washington has the resources necessary to ensure a prompt, equitable and comprehensive recovery for all. "Two years after Katrina, it's past time for Washington to make good on its promises."

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